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Monday, February 3, 2014

Mrs. R. crosses the line

[October 1799]

As we drew near the equator, the conversation at table turned upon the ceremony which marks the transition to the southern hemisphere. The chief mate asking the doctor if he had crossed the line, the answer was, that he had. It was then inquired, on what voyage, and to what country the ship sailed? He replied, to the Coast of Guinea.  However, equivocation on the part of the doctor caused a doubt in the minds of the mates. He was asked, if he had seen the line when he crossed it? He said, he just got a glimpse of it, but as it was near dark at the time, he did not see it distinctly. This was enough to determine them that he should be both ducked and shaved, when Neptune paid the ship a visit.

I should be sorry to traduce the character of any person in these few simple remarks; but for the sake of truth, cannot help giving an outline of this person’s qualifications. In the first place, he was most ignorant in his profession as a surgeon, and otherwise illiterate, yet specious and crafty. He had imposed upon the captain by a fair face and false pretensions. The captain, pitying the awkward situation into which he had got, took his part at all times when the officers of the ship were against him; but having discovered his want of skill, was under the necessity of employing one of the prisoners, named MacCullam, who was a professional man, and had seen better days: for the ship surgeon, knowing his own deficiency, gave way to him in everything.

Many jokes now passed about the expected initiation; nothing was said to the doctor, only that Neptune had a very ready method of surely finding out who had passed this part of his dominoins, and could not be deceived. On the 8th October, at noon, we were only twenty-eight miles north of the equator, approaching it with a fine breeze. A sharp look-out was kept to see the line before dark; the chief mate fastened a day-glass to the side rails on the deck. All the gentlemen in turn came to take a peep; and amonst the rest, the doctor, who declared that he saw the line, and that it appeared no larger than a silken thread: all looked and saw the same. Mr. Muirhead, the chief mate, put this trick upon the doctor’s ignorance and credulity, by placing a small thread across one of the inside glasses of the telescope to create a distinct prospect of the line.

Nothing farther passed until about eight in the evening, when we heard the ship hailed in a most strange manner by a hoarse thundering voice, saying, “Ho-o—the ship a Ho-oye,” which was answered by the Haloo. “What ship?” was demanded by the same tremendous voice. “The Friendship,” was answered. “Very well; tell the captain that after twelve o’clock tomorrow he must prepare all on board who have not crossed into the southern regions before, to prepare to take the oath of allegiance, and go through the usual ceremonies.” An interchange of “Good night,” closed the conference. The boatswain, with a speaking-trumpet concealed at the end of the flying jib-boom, had managed, in delivering Neptune’s message, to make the sound appear as if emitted from the profound below.

The ship crossed the equator about ten o’clock that night. Next morning some of the sails were taken in, and the ship, as they termed it, made snug. I was cautioned, if I wished to be a spectator of the ceremony, to wear a dress that would not spoil by salt-water, as no respect would be shewn to any one while Neptune was on board: this hint I followed, being anxious to observe what passed. 

About one o’clock the ship was again hailed by the same hoarse voice, desiring them to lie to, as Neptune was coming on board. This order was soon complied with. Presently the screen, formed by a sail on the forecastle, was opened, and presented such a sight as I never shall forget. Had I not been prepared for the pageantry, and told that some of the seamen were to be the actors, I should not have supposed them to have been earthly beings.

A car was drawn towards the quarter-deck, in which were seated two figures representing Neptune and Amphitrite, with their marine attendants. The captain welcomed the sea-deity and his retine on board, and asked him what refreshment he would take? He answered, “A glass of gin would be very acceptable.” After which, he inquired how many mortals were on the list to take the oath of allegiance, and to undergo the ceremony? He expressed a hope that all the prisoners should be shaved and ducked. This the captain compromised, by saying that Neptune’s health should be drunk every Saturday night, until we were past the Cape of Good Hope.

The persons who were to be initiated were brought up from below blindfolded, one at a time, and placed over a large tub of water on the main deck; tar was applied to the chin with a blacking brush, which was shaved off by an iron hoop, one side of it was notched, the other not; those who were refractory were shaved with the rough side; they were then plunged backwards in the tub of water, while several buckets full were thrown over them. Some unmeaning jargon, address to them by Neptune, finished this great business.

The only persons at our tabled shaved were a Mr. Maundrel, passenger, and the doctor; the former submitted to it, and escaped pretty well; the latter, who was very refractory, was roughly handled, and had not the captain interfered, would have suffered much more. When the shaving was over, they began to souse each other with water, and I came in for a small share, which made me retreat as soon as possible. [To be continued]

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